Post-Retirement 7-Month Azimuth Check

I officially retired 01 APR 2018, however, I went on terminal leave in JAN and took a position as a Project Manager at a small university (perhaps I should have read my own article I wrote much later).  I plan to write a much more detailed article about project management and how it does and does not fit with military veterans and retirees.  There are many articles that suggest this as a natural course, after all, many of us are accustomed to synchronizing efforts, setting and following timelines and basically getting things done.  These are key skills that translate well into project management – with a caveat – at the right place, in the right role and in the right culture.

Any company, anywhere, that seeks a person that thinks on their feet, can understand and follow “doctrine” and best-practices but is agile enough to adjust on the fly and has a proven record of getting things done in adverse, chaotic and challenging environments would do well to hire many veterans for a project management role.  I can think back to the faces and names of dozens of aggressive staff officers and see them making a real impact in a company that knows how to ride the various horses it adds to its stable.

I have been a member of PMI (the Project Management Institute) for about a year and a half.  Through various venues, I have met a lot of PMP’s and discussed how they do things at their company.  I have read various articles and probably just like you I have previous experiences with PMPs that worked for contractors as part of contracts I either managed or worked with.  I certainly do not know all there is about the “profession” but I have made some observations.

First, the term “project manager” is used in job advertisements to describe everything from vacuum cleaner salesmen to administrative assistants to engineers managing massive capital construction projects.  Despite PMI’s efforts to say it is a profession,  and their test, anybody can, and is called a project manager.

Second, not every organization that employees project managers, in the sense that PMI perhaps intends, operates in the same way.  On one end of the scale are organizations that look for PMs that can be that aggressive staff/action officer, taking broad guidance and intent and shaping plans, timelines and actions to get the task and mission accomplished.  On the other far end are organizations that see project management as a set of constraints, rigid left and right boundaries, and project managers as nothing more than applicators of those constraints and mere administrative staff to collect and report data.

I did not know it for sure when I accepted my position, but I  joined the later type of organization, one that sees project management as a set of hard-wired rules that could be applied in almost all situations.

From this I took my first lesson-learned: LL#1 Don’t fear not getting a job in the interview, have a real conversation and get a clear understanding.

I made this realization pretty quickly into the position but I determined that I would stay at least a year, perhaps eventually show them there were other ways and learn to embrace some of their controls.

An early red-flag, one that continually popped up weekly, if not daily, was this organization’s experience with another veteran.  This fellow held my position previous to me.  He was younger than I, he left the Army as a Captain, I did not and do not know him personally but I knew something about him.  My wife also works at this university, she had been familiar with him and some of his projects.   I was initially informed that his departure was amicable and mutual but over time I began to sense much angst toward him and perhaps even the mention of his name.  We will call him Tom for this narrative.

Almost weekly, when I would come across a problem or a roadblock in a project and I would envision possible courses of action to get around it I would hear words like “Tom did that and so and so did not like it, we cannot do that”.   No matter how illogical the conclusion was that had become part of the law.   I began more and more to ask myself why am I seeing the same type of solutions to the same type of problems, better solutions than the ones I am being dictated?   Tom is human, as a human he is fallible, I do not know a lot about him other than the things he did are the things I would have expected of him as a young staff officer, these were the same type solutions I was coming up with.

I realized the organization simply had not known how to utilize Tom and they were unwilling to learn from him.  My second realization was that I would likely be no different.

And this taught me my second lesson-learned: LL#2 Make sure you go to work for a company that hires you to do what you know.

I very likely would have resolved to stay for the year I had committed to in my mind if it had not been for one additional factor.   The week after I began they moved a person from another department in as a project manager.  I found this person’s character and personality revolting.  I dreaded going to meetings to hear their opinion of proper project management and even Oxford commas.  They fancied themselves and expert on the military (because their father was a cook), the English language and government relations.  They even schooled me one day on how the government works because they are enrolled in a public administration course at night. I suppose I never learned that much dealing with so many government agencies myself.

In our business in the military, where we can say real words, this person and I would have come to terms, one way or another.  In the world of “nice” words and no ability to perhaps call them out for combatives you are left with few options when faced with an obstinate fool.

My third lesson-learned from this experience; LL#3 Life too short to associate with people you do not want to.

I would have powered on through #1 and #2 but when combined with #3 I was done.   I turned in my notice in mid-April.  I made it four months.  I had become that statistic I had sworn not to be, I was a veteran that left their first full-time job in the first year.  I offered to work part-time for a few months to finish out a project, they accepted and I have been doing that since.  That project is wrapping up now and I look back to wonder what all went wrong.   The three months as part-time were great.  I did not attend meetings with the loud-mouth.  I did not ask permission to do what is right to move my project along.  I came in, I did my work, I pushed things that needed to be pushed and I submitted reports.   Ultimately, that is just the sort of job I was looking for, if the last three months were the reality I would still be employed full-time, and happy.

I do not regret taking the position.  I turned down others before and since, some that paid much more.  However, money was never the main objective.  I wanted a position where I could use my skills, do what I know, make a difference and enjoy the people around me.  None of that materialized sufficiently to make me stay.  I learned a lot (about myself and people), I got to ride to work with my wife and have lunch with her for a time and that was nice but in the final equation, things did not balance.

How could this have worked better?   I take all the blame.

The organization simply did not know what they had in Tom and they did not know what they had in me.  I am certain during the interview process I could have and should have spoken up, been more candid, asked questions during the time the red-flag popped up.  They may not have hired me, people in the civilian world turn interviews on small things, but if that were the case it was not a loss and still the right thing to do.  At the time I thought I was clear about me, who I am and what I want but perhaps not.

I should have set the conditions for our relationship in a stronger way earlier.  I do not need to be managed, I will not ask permission to do what is right and I do not need to be retrained on everything I know.   If I were a youngster, without a pension, perhaps I would need to accept that I have to change most of who I am.   They hired a  guy that spent 30 years in the Army doing things.  Obviously, I have much to learn, change and adjust – but my core – that is simply who they hired.  I failed to establish the proper parameters early on.  We could have done great things together, not teaching them how to utilize me was my failure.

Finally, we certainly did not like everyone we served with in the military.  However, our promotion system over time would rid the system of people like the individual from LL#3.  If they had ever been commissioned in the first place they would have been sent home as a lieutenant.  I would not have worked with this person as a “peer” at this juncture of my life.   However, I take responsibility for this.   I should have taken charge of the situation earlier.  Perhaps announced my disdain for dealing with them and given the organization an opportunity to make an adjustment one way or another.

I take the blame because I control me.  Companies that want to leverage and tap into the skills and experience that veterans bring to the table could learn by applying the converse of the above.

My free-time since May while I worked just part-time has been great.  I have worked on tasks I thought I would never get to.  One of my hobbies is reading and writing about the philosophy of John C. Calhoun, another is genealogy.  As much as those subjects may interest me they do not make for solid general social conversation, most people glaze their eyes over

It has been a great life – but there has been a subtle burning desire.  I want to do a few more things.  Pile up some extra money and maybe have one more adventure.


Moving forward – I have decided to do something that I almost swore I would not do – Defense Contracting.  A young fellow with a small subcontractor reached out to me twice about an O/C-T position, I rebuffed him the first time.   The second time I told him I would consider it and within 5 days they sent me an offer letter.  My how different the process is compared to civilian jobs.   No formal interview – just a conversation about the task to see if you are the real deal.   No references – your record and the people that know you speak to that.  No long process – they have a contract with an empty spot and they need your skill-set.

I am excited to see what the next few months bring.  I had the most enjoyable three years of my career out at Fort Irwin as an O/C and now I get to go back – this time with an air-conditioned Jeep! This will NOT be forever, it is not my full purpose,  and that flight back and forth between rotations will get tiresome but I get back to the desert, in boots, training troops.  What is not to love about that, if just for a short time.

Author: Barry

Southerner, father, husband, Christian and a retired Army field grade officer. Author of five books and of several papers and articles on ethics, culture, history, geopolitics and military affairs. He is the Executive Director of The Calhoun Institute and a partner at B&B Clark Consulting.

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